Marriage makes you healthy and happy (if you do it with a friend)

So, you know I’m a fan of marriage.  There’s long been plenty of evidence that people who are married are healthier and happier (I used to assign a reading titled “how marriage is like a bran muffin”), but not necessarily evidence that this is a causal relationship.  The latest research provides strong evidence that marriage helps to create well-being– especially when it suffers most in the 40’s.  The Upshot:

A new economics paper has some old-fashioned advice for people navigating the stresses of life: Find a spouse who is also your best friend.

Social scientists have long known that married people tend to be happier, but they debate whether that is because marriage causes happiness or simply because happier people are more likely to get married. The new paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, controlled for pre-marriage happiness levels.

It concluded that being married makes people happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who remain single – particularly during the most stressful periods, like midlife crises.

Even as fewer people are marrying, the disadvantages of remaining single have broad implications. It’s important because marriage is increasingly a force behind inequality. Stable marriages are more common among educated, high-income people, and increasingly out of reach for those who are not. That divide appears to affect not just people’s income and family stability, but also their happiness and stress levels…

Those whose lives are most difficult could benefit most from marriage, according to the economists who wrote the new paper, John Helliwell of the Vancouver School of Economics and Shawn Grover of the Canadian Department of Finance. “Marriage may be most important when there is that stress in life and when things are going wrong,” Mr. Grover said…

Intriguingly, marital happiness long outlasted the honeymoon period. Though some social scientists have argued that happiness levels are innate, so people return to their natural level of well-being after joyful or upsetting events, the researchers found that the benefits of marriage persist.

One reason for that might be the role of friendship within marriage. Those who consider their spouse or partner to be their best friend get about twice as much life satisfaction from marriage as others, the study found…

The effect of friendship seems to be the result of living with a romantic partner, rather than the legal status of being married, because it was as strong for people who lived together but weren’t married. Women benefit more from being married to their best friend than men do, though women are less likely to regard their spouse as their best friend.

“What immediately intrigued me about the results was to rethink marriage as a whole,” Mr. Helliwell said. “Maybe what is really important is friendship, and to never forget that in the push and pull of daily life.”

Pretty interesting stuff.  And I’m sure glad that I made the decision to marry my best friend 20 years ago.

Also, Wonkblog took a look, but focused more on how much it helps the happiness of those in middle age (in one of their charts, happiness bottoms out at 42– nowhere to go but up!).  Nice graph here:

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Marriage makes you healthy and happy (if you do it with a friend)

  1. Mika says:

    This: “Those who consider their spouse or partner to be their best friend…” Every once in a while when I read your blog something like this pops out and I know that I’ll think about this for the next couple of weeks. Is she my best “friend”? How does one define “friend”? The bond that I’m having with her is qualitatively somehow totally different than I have with my “proper” friends or is it? She is my woman and I’m her man. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less…

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